Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Peter Lovesey and the solved problem

I like authors who solve narrative problems, and that superb craftsman and fine storyteller Peter Lovesey solved a whopper in his 1990 mystery Bertie and the Seven Bodies (Felony and Mayhem Press), the second of his three novels about Bertie, Prince of Wales.

I picked up this affectionate tribute to Golden Age mysteries, Agatha Christie's in particular, as a change of pace, and I noticed early on how skillfully Lovesey captures the flavor and tone of an English country-house mystery while at the same time remaining thoroughly up to date.

How does he do this? First by making the jovial prince and the pretty hostess more explicitly randy than his predecessors in the Golden Age probably would have; second, by describing the pheasant hunt that is the occasion for the story's house party far more thoroughly than I expect a Golden Age author would have done:

"The planning for this week of sport had begun more than a year ago, and the arrangements couldn't be altered at the drop of a hat. What with loaders, beaters, stops, pickers-up, drivers and catering staff, we could be using more than two hundred personnel."

"The dead birds were tidily lined up for counting, almost two hundred pheasants, one of the gamekeepers said, bringing our day's bag past seven hundred."

"I waited, flanked by my loaders, picturing the activity in the coverts as the fugitive birds scampered ahead of the beaters. A pheasant has a natural reluctance to take to its wings, and it requires a well-managed beat to put it up precisely over the guns without flushing too many other at once."

"This
battue was faultless. They presented the birds in a long, soaring sequence almost vertically above us. I worked with three guns, receiving from the loader on my right, firing and passing it empty to the other man, never shifting my eyes from the sky."
The accumulated weight of these vignettes adds up to a startling picture of sybaritism, a portrait of long, hard work by many devoted to the idle and momentary enjoyment of a few. And yet they work as action and description without ever coming off as shrill, polemical, condescending or anachronistically knowing.

Why? Because Bertie describes the scene with an innocent eye. He does not know that what he sees might be appalling to the democratic and ecological sensibilities of today's readers. That distance safely allows us both to enjoy the scene and to be surprised, even shocked, by its waste and luxury. To put it another way, Lovesey has written the most socially authentic-seeming hunt scene I can remember in any crime story.

Lovesey appeals beautifully to current readers' sensibilities. At the same time, he maintains the atmosphere of a story composed in the past (that he does this all against yet a third layer of time, the story's 19th-century setting, is a matter for discussion elsewhere). What other authors do this?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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16 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

"Lovesey has written the most socially authentic-seeming hunt scene I can remember in any crime story."

You're forgetting Dick Cheney's shotgun blast to the face of his buddy.

Wodehouse was pretty good at describing the country-house milieu in his stories; the "crimes" were meaningless, but the farce was great.

June 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How fortunate for Lovesey that Edward VII was heir apparent longer than anyone else in English history (though Charles is catching up), "came to personify the fashionable, leisured elite," and was known as Bertie. The Wodehouse parallels must have jumped out and grabbed Peter Lovesey by the throat.

My favorite Wodehouse house-party farce that has to do with crime is probably "The Smile That Wins." Lovesey does not seem to be up to farce here, and he is writing a crime story, as opposed to Wodehouse, who loved mysteries and wrote about them in his stories, but wrote just one real mystery story himself, as far as I know.

I think Edward VII is the meeting point of Lovesey and Wodehouse. Lovesey made him a protagonist (though his Bertie is still Prince of Wales and not yet Edward VII), and I have read that although Wodehouse set his stories of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves in the 1920s, they more accurately reflected the Edwardian social milieu of a few decades earlier.

June 26, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

What other authors do this?

The best ones, the ones with a deft touch. Ironically, it seems that the less overt your thematic commentary is, the more powerful your points -- provided the reader doesn't have his head in the sand.

June 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

James Ellroy does it in L.A. Confidential, and the movie version may do so as well. Both recreate the texture and themes of the 1940s or 1950s but are at the same time a lot more explicit than crime books and certaonly movies of hte time were. I think especially of the scene in which the police beat a bunch of Mexican prisoners in a jail.

June 26, 2008  
Blogger GJG said...

twas indeed a golden age, and the description of the hunt, almost makes me wanna cry ----for its not ever going to happen in todays world---the icecaps are melting, flooding, severe weather all over the world, the price of food sky rocketing---already being price beyond what some can afford----sigh

June 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's what Lovesey does so well; He conveys the pleasure of shooting (I guess what he depicts is not a hunt, strictly speaking) and the shocking luxury and privilege at the same time.

June 26, 2008  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

There is a book by Josephine Tey (she was writing slightly after the 'Golden Age') - THE DAUGHTER OF TIME (first published 1951, I read a 2002 reprint by Arrow Books - I dug out my notebook for the details. Here, her series-detective, Inspector Alan Grant, is laid-up after an accident and goes back in time to speculate upon and solve the mystery of Richard III, who supposedly (but actually didn't) murdered his nephews, the poignantly-painted princes in the tower. As can be expected, it was all part of another royal conspiracy, hatched by the rival Tudors to discredit Richard (the last Plantagenet of the House of York)!
Lovesey's book sounds a treat for golden-age mystery lovers like me!

June 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If you enjoy Golden Age mysteries, I would not only recommend Bertie and the Seven Bodies, I would also like to know what you think of the ways Lovesey keeps tale fresh and how he both pays tribute to and pokes fun at his models. i was thinking that I might go back and read a real Golden Age country-house mystery once I've finished this book. Any recommendations?

I have visited the Tower, but I have not read Daughter of Time. I do have a copy lying around somewhere. I'd like to see how Tey keeps up the suspense and tension with a protagonist who spends the story flat on his back.

June 26, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Here's my take on Daughter of Time.

I enjoyed the heck out of it on re-reading. Alan Grant is a series character, too; Tey wrote several more books with him as lead policeman.

June 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. That's a good advertisement for the book, and so is the response to your post.

I read The Singing Sands a few years back, and I remember liking the idea that Grant needed a rest from mental exhaustion but also find the mystery a bit arbitrary and off-putting in a way I could not even begin to make into a coherent argument at this late date. Perhaps I ought to read the book again.

June 27, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

Peter, the MS of The Singing Sands was found among Tey's papers after her death -- she didn't find plotting easy, so she may not have been altogether happy with it. However, H.R.F. Keating paid her a great compliment by including both The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair in his "100 Best" list. The latter has been adapted for the big screen twice and for television three times, I think, and, significantly, Tey turned to the historical past for the plot of that one as well -- the 18th century Elizabeth Canning case. Both 'must-reads', I should say.

If you do look for a Golden Age country house mystery, I have just re-read after some thirty years, and thanks to Crime Scraps, Michael Innes' Hamlet, Revenge! Rich, few to equal it and none better. Republished by House of Stratus in a rather fine softcover edition in 2001.

June 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not known the circumstances of The Singing Sands' publication. I do know of the reputations of the other two titles, so I was not assessing Tey based on the one book I had read.

And thanks for the Hamlet, Revenge! recommendation. I had just recently read about the book in 100 Must-Read Crime Novels.

June 27, 2008  
Blogger Barrie said...

I haven't read a mystery like this in ages. I liked the excerpt you included in your post. I'm sure I'd enjoy the book. Thanks!

June 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There can't have been many mysteries like, nostalgic and fresh at the same time. I'll probably read the remaining two in the series and maybe even find occasion to post more good lines from this one.

June 27, 2008  
Blogger KarinT said...

I recently discovered Robert Barnard, an English writer of many suspense novels. His short stories are masterful. One, titled Balmorality in The Habit of Widowhood ends with Edward VII thanking Lovesey. Not getting the connection, I googled and found the answer. Now I have to read Peter Lovesey. Thank you!

September 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Karin. I shall look for that story, and I suspect that I will get a great kick out of it. Peter Lovesey strikes me as one of the most versatile and accomplished of crime writers. He makes the craft look easy.

September 03, 2008  

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